“It’s time we move,” my mother says. The family next door, a very young, very blond married couple and their baby, worry her. It’s 1978, I am just eight years old, and in the few months the Dixons have been our neighbors I’ve seen my first pornographic magazine, learned several curse words that I keep to myself, and witnessed the sounds of a wife-beater’s rage through the thin walls of our two-story apartment. We’ve lived here my whole life, and the idea of relocating to a new neighborhood or anywhere beyond Munhall, Pennsylvania frightens me.
Every building in the development where we live, known as The Projects, looks the same. In the 1940s, the residential plan was constructed as defense housing primarily for Homestead steel mill workers and their families. Our apartment is at the east end of an eight-unit brick row house on crowded Longfellow Drive, which surrounds the area in an oval. The street rises from heavily-traveled West Run Road below it into a great hillside. From the air, Longfellow probably looks like a lasso in full spin, about to close tight around the cars and buildings of the little community within it.
I know my next-door neighbors’ first names: Sue and ‘Whitey’. Their baby is as fair as her parents. She’s just starting to crawl. Sue and Whitey look as though they could be brother and sister, the tips of their eyelashes are yellow like their wavy hair. I know their voices. I’ve spoken face-to-face with Sue and listened to her talk with my parents. I’ve spoken very little to Whitey. He doesn’t usually acknowledge me, but on those rare occasions when he does, he doesn’t say much. His blue eyes, wide and wild, make me nervous.
Most often, I hear Whitey after his late nights filled with heavy drinking or drugs. I don’t know he’s drunk or high, my parents tell me he is. I hear what I imagine is the flattened palm of his stiff hand, his fist, maybe his foot in a heavy boot, strike his wife’s body; hear her scream, cry, beg, hit the wall or floor, tumble violently down the staircase on the other side of the shared wall between our apartments. Sometimes I wonder if he hits her hard enough to draw blood; if she’s holding the baby when he hits her. In the silence that follows, my parents speak softly from their bedroom. “It’s okay, kids, go back to sleep.”
My older sister visits Sue to help her with the baby, or, I will learn later, to smoke a joint. Maybe they discuss the fighting, maybe Sue makes excuses for her husband. Maybe she gives a reason she deserves the beatings. When I am older, I will silently question whether the violence followed a confrontation between Sue and Whitey, maybe about him being out late, about his responsibility as the father of their child, about the money they didn’t have that he spent on cocaine, about not saving any for her. For now, my mother is convinced, she says, “he is dealing.” Strangers, mostly men, stop at the Dixon’s throughout the week for only a few minutes, and at odd times of the day and night.
One afternoon the fighting is particularly awful, and following a medley of swearing, slapping and shouting, of glass breaking and bodies banging and being slammed against furniture, when it seems the wall will crash in on us, we hear a dull thud. Seconds later, Sue bolts through the back door of our apartment, hysterical, her face swollen and red and streaked with tears. She is holding a large, thick candle and tells my dad between sobs she’s “hit Whitey and really fucking hurt him.” My dad locks the door and reaches for the phone, says he’s dialing the police. Clearly shaken, he nearly shouts it. Sue begs him not to call, says Whitey will kill her. I do not move from my spot next to my building blocks on the living room floor. I do not breathe.
My dad doesn’t call. A few months later we have packed our toys and records in boxes. A moving truck is parked in front of the apartment, and two men I’ve never seen before are carrying our green crushed velvet couch out the front door.
I won’t remember saying goodbye to Sue. I will not hear her again, even when she’s screaming. Several streets away form here, our new house has no shared walls.